On March 19th, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Kirtsaeng vs. John Wiley & Sons. In a 6-3 decision in favor of Supap Kirtsaeng, they ruled that textbooks and other goods manufactured and sold abroad can be resold in the United States without violating copyright law. In other words, a student can buy an international version of the textbook they need, which is normally much cheaper than the U.S. version, and then be able to legally resell it to another student afterwards.
Before the Supreme Court ruling, Mr. Kirtsaeng, a student from Thailand attending Cornell University, noticed that the textbooks he used in class were sold cheaper in his homeland. He asked his family if they would be willing to send him some of these textbooks. His intention was to sell them to American students for much cheaper prices than the college bookstores, but still generate a profit. These actions prompted Wiley to sue Mr. Kirtsaeng on the basis of copyright infringement and they won a $600,000 award. However, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court and the previous ruling from a lower court was overturned, indicating that his actions were legal and he is not required to pay the copyright infringement award.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, along with Justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, disagreed with the ruling. They felt that the court was ignoring Congress’ role of protecting “copyright owners against the unauthorized importation of low-priced, foreign-made copies of their copyrighted works.”
Justice Stephen Breyer, on the other hand, wrote a court opinion saying that if the ruling had come out against Mr. Kirtsaeng, it would have had far reaching implications exceeding the topic of textbooks. A decision in favor of the publisher Wiley would have affected the sale of many goods sold online and in discount stores. Retailers, such as eBay, were quick to tell the court that more than $2.3 trillion worth of foreign goods were imported in 2011, and many of these goods were bought after they were first sold abroad. In addition, it would have made it more difficult for museums and libraries to obtain works produced outside of the United States.
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